My plan from Hong Kong was to board the overnight train to Guilin and from there begin riding my bicycle ride across southern China and into Laos, but I’d just received word from a friend of mine from college who had moved to a place called Shenzhen and accepted a job as manager of a toy factory. I was less than twenty miles away; he was right across China’s border with Hong Kong. His birthday was the next day and I decided I would go and visit him.
Shenzhen was a story in itself. I had heard about it in everything from reportage in The Economist to the wistful dreams of Chinese youth in the distant countryside, talking and dreaming of the “Miracle City” the way that a youth in Kansas would speak of New York. Its residents refer to it affectionately as “The Overnight City” and every conversation brings out the city’s average age: twenty-eight years old. In 1980, Deng Xiao Ping chose Shenzhen to be the first of China’s Special Economic Zones, one of a few places in which the government would loosen the reins on the command economy and build a testing ground for market capitalism. Thirty years ago it was just a fishing village of 30,000, a small place by Chinese standards. Today it was a city of twelve million, a beacon to ambitious youth around the country and the world and to billions of dollars in foreign investment.
I found the intersection where I was to meet Arthur Chen and looked up at a grim shopping mall across the road. Workmen in People’s Liberation Army boots huffed and panted, pushing wheelbarrows full of concrete. Jackhammers clanged along in the streets and in the alleys. They would not stop for hours, though night had fallen long ago. When I turned around, my friend was standing before me. “I thought you’d be looking like a castaway by now,” old Chen said, grinning widely. He was a tall, looming fellow with a clean crew cut, wearing a blue Columbia sweatshirt that I’d seen many times before.
“There are no bicycle lanes in your city, Arthur,” I said.
“That’s image,” he said. “We’re a modern city; everyone’s gonna drive cars. It’s a vision. But the fact that there are no bicycle lanes doesn’t change the fact that some Chinese people are going to ride bikes. So there are tons of bicycles going along on the sidewalks; people are getting clipped. It’s dangerous. I’ve been hit multiple times. A couple of weeks ago, I was holding my groceries and I got hit by a bike! All these bikes are riding around and everybody’s like, What the hell is going on? So, as much as Shenzhen wants to be a modern city, half of it is practical and half of it isn’t. It’s a motivational thing. You can ride around on a bicycle but you’re not going to have anywhere to put it. This is why Shenzhen is unique: it’s China but it’s not. I mean what is China? Ask anybody and they’ll tell you China is history. Shenzhen has no history. And people don’t care. They’re here to make money. They drink, make deals, screw girls, and that’s it. That’s what it is. Nothing but trouble, you know.”
Chen’s apartment was twenty stories above the city floor. On the steel elevator two young Chinese women in leather knee boots were blushing at us and giggling. Chen smiled down at them. He was enjoying this city of youth.
We walked along a steel star bridge high above the city floor. Through the windows I could see the neon signs glowing on the smoking pits of rebar and concrete. Up here there was no discernible noise, only the city hum down beneath us as the car horns sounded and the jackhammers battered the supple ground. Back into the march of neon neon neon life! To think that all the little fishing towns aspire to this!
“I get in a taxi in this city,” Chen said, “and the taxi driver starts telling me about ‘Oh I’m in the stock market. Trying to make some money, you know!’ Anybody, everybody is in the stock market, no matter what they’ve got. But I’m a human being; I can only talk about this for so long. I get it, though. There’s a great Chinese phrase: chi bao cheng de. It basically means, only when you’re full can you think about the other things. A full belly, and everything else is a luxury. You can relate; I told someone at the toy factory about your trip and he called you chi bao cheng de. I get what you’re doing, but a lot of people won’t. There are a lot of people out there just trying to get their bellies full.”
The morning came in Shenzhen and we took the steel elevator down through the stacks of rooms, back down to the floor of the world. “Here,” said Chen, “the pickpockets are always waiting. They work in pairs. One to distract you and the other to lift your wallet.” We stood at the bus stop with a groggy morning crowd. The youth did not have much to bargain with here. It was time to work, and lucky you were if your work was for your dreams.
The bus let us off and we walked through a gate to an office compound, past a golden statue of the Buddha, dancing on a pedestal. “For fortune,” Chen said, referring to the golden god. We walked through some corridors and into his office which was filled with toys. The desktops were scattered with electric cars and work machines, Candy Land train sets and plastic Mustangs. Chen sat down to his computer to check the news. A set of prostitutes were being paraded through Shenzhen today by the police; their names and hometowns were written on placards around their necks and they hung their heads in shame. A plastic robot lurched across Chen’s desk. A strange world it was indeed.
At the end of a hall a fat man called me into his office. He had two tufts of black hair on either side of a balding head and they bobbed beneath the ceiling fan. He poured me a cup of green tea, with loose leaves floating on the surface of the water. I felt like a surveyor, walking through the factory lines. What did the workers think of this interloper in their world? Or would they mind at all? Now I was directly invited into the boss’s office. He pulled out a chair and poured me tea as though I was some kind of government inspector. “Their salaries are quite good,” he said, smiling and pursing his lips. “They work from seven-thirty am to five pm, for seven hundred yuan per month. But they earn six yuan per hour overtime.” He paused as if for effect and said, “And most of them prefer to work overtime.”
The lunch bells rang and everyone got up from their spots, stampeding out the doorways towards the high concrete dormitories where they lived, with grey balconies that hung with laundry lines. I sat with a group of girls outside in a yard, eating vegetables and rice in little Styrofoam boxes which they shared with me. They giggled and looked away when I asked them questions. Then a squat old woman with a serving spoon came up and shook it in my face, telling me to get out of here, which I did, and ran back to find Arthur Chen.
We went off to a nightclub with a group of Chen’s friends. He was keen to hook up with an English teacher he’d invited and warned me not to try anything with her. A big bouncer with an earpiece showed us in the door without a word and we filed into the dusky rows of tables and glowing cigarettes. Bass drums pounded flatly around the inky room. Chen ordered several bottles of vodka and wine and we set about playing strange little dice games in the darkness as a live band played American rock a dozen feet away. I ignored the dice and wound up drunk with a little blonde beauty in a white detective coat laughing in my arms. Yes, this was the night of youth, the night like any night all over the world. “Nobody gets it,” old Chen said, “when I say that my life in China is pretty much the same as it was in New York.” The rambling music jangled through the air and the bouncers glared with folded arms. All the boys and girls were smiling, come home from the daily rise of the working day to navigate the night. The boys ran pocket combs through their gel-slick hair in bathroom mirrors. The girls smoked their lazy cigarettes. I thought of the migrants out in the streets.
Shenzhen was not really a city that one was born into. All had come here on their own it seemed. I thought of all the young men shouldering their bags, to go off to find their destiny. I thought of all the youth scattered across the cities of the world in their high-rise balconies. The pretty blonde girl leaned against me in my arms; I held her close and could feel her heart beat, so quick and so alive.
It was morning. I woke up on a futon somewhere and stepped out on a windy balcony surrounded by trees and hills. Laundry was flapping in the breeze and children chased birds in a courtyard twenty stories below me. The breeze was beautiful and I felt great. I had no idea where I was. I looked around the apartment and found a kid asleep in a bed amidst some shelves of vodka bottles, business handbooks, and University of Denver sweatshirts. “Good morning!” he said, rolling over and noticing me. He was damned cheerful too, a friend of Chen’s who’d been at the club the night before. It turned out I was on the other side of the city.
I made my way back through the endless rows of concrete housing blocks and found Chen seated at a McDonald’s, chowing down on a hamburger after a fine night of drinking, seated amidst a dozen Chinese families who’d brought their children in for a salty breakfast there. Outside, kids were picking gum up off the street. My train was leaving in an hour so we went back up to the apartment to gather my things.
Chen stood on the balcony and looked out over the city. “I’m planning to get into exporting suits after a little more time here,” he said. “I can have them made for eight hundred kuai and ship them back to New York.” He was still a businessman at heart. I was strapping my things to the bike with a set of bungee cords and he was watching me. “I’ll give you two to one odds that all your shit will get jacked,” he said. He noticed my discontented look. “Fine, three to one.” I opened up my journal where I’d scrawled something the night before: Now I see that I am going alone, sleeping in the fields and caves, shared by no one. This is my choice. It is mine and mine completely. Yes, my journey was upon me now. It would be a real undertaking. I felt a bit sad at leaving this jolly group of expatriate youth, drinking whiskey and wine in their little apartments spread across the city. I loved the thought of them, Chen and his suits and toys, all the youth in their high-rise apartments all over the world, cooking up their plans. But we bid each other adieu, Chen reminding me once more not to die (he emailed me often to make sure I was still alive) and I got back on my bicycle and rode off through the late day crowds of the city.
Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.